How to become more sustainable in the digital world
The most recent figures show that South Africa produces 7.5 metric tonnes per capita of CO2 emissions annually, even more than the UK (5.2). In fact, the country’s reliance on coal makes it the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses (GHG) on the planet.
Fortunately, growing concerns around the warming climate are driving change and forcing governments and companies worldwide to focus on reducing their carbon footprint.
Digital transformation is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions. Aviation may seem like the biggest culprit, but the IT industry's global drive to promote digital transformation is contributing significantly. For example, studies show that the aviation industry emits 50% more greenhouse gases than the entire digital sector.
Mobile device growth
Technology is responsible for around 6% of the planet’s CO2 emissions from its industrial processes. This figure includes areas such as datacentres, internet traffic, and the use of smartphones, televisions, and other digital devices.
While many have celebrated how remote working is cutting down on emissions by seeing people commute less, every Zoom call still contributes to global warming. The same can be said for logging in to Netflix, using your smart home control device, and even downloading your favourite podcasts. All these contribute to the IT sector’s emissions total.
Of course, that process starts with (and very much includes) the energy consumption and industrial emissions associated with the initial production and manufacture of all our devices and systems.
Given how advanced smartphones are becoming and the increasingly sophisticated features they are including, the cost to pay goes beyond financial. There is also the cost to consider when it comes to the greater energy consumption that takes during these devices’ production. This growth trajectory creates ‘inflationary consumption habits’ in wealthy countries - buying more digital devices more frequently, further amplifying the issue.
Even in a developing nation like South Africa, there is little difference. With the number of smartphone users here projected to top 26 million by next year, it all adds fuel to the proverbial fire of increased emissions.
Devices are just part of the discussion. Given the rapid migration to the cloud, data centres are a significant contributor to emissions. Datacentres account for approximately 20% of Scope 2 indirect emissions for most organisations.
According to the US EPA, Scope 2 emissions are indirect GHG emissions associated with purchasing electricity, steam, heat, or cooling. Although Scope 2 emissions physically occur at the facility where they are generated, they are accounted for in a company’s GHG inventory because they are a result of the organisation’s energy use.
As the world’s businesses and consumers increasingly rely on these datacentres and the associated digital infrastructure to work, relax, and engage with one another, the energy requirements will continue to escalate.
Since 2010, the number of internet users has doubled, and internet traffic has increased by a factor of 15, with storage increasing 5-fold. For its part, South Africa has more than 41 million internet users. The local datacentre market is expected to grow by more than 11% annually through 2027 to break through the US$3-billion mark by that year. This will significantly contribute to the country’s carbon footprint.
The early notions of green IT and the ‘Energy Star’ rating systems of the ‘90s have now been widely advanced with the move to Net Zero - this focuses on achieving a balance between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere and the carbon removed from it.
But even Net Zero is not the silver bullet many make it out to be. A laser-like commitment to decarbonisation puts the spotlight on a single element of the sustainability chain. This ignores other environmental concerns such as packaging, product, water, and waste. It also gives rise to a range of computer-generated climate-economic models that are only sometimes practical to follow in real-world scenarios.
Transforming the environment
This does not mean we should sit back and ignore the entire value chain. Take datacentres as an example. Companies can introduce automation, innovative cooling systems, and renewable energies to transform the traditional 3-tier datacentre architectures of old to next-generation datacentre architectures.
This means using advanced technologies that include hyperconverged infrastructures (HCI), which will be vital in reducing the energy consumption and carbon footprint of datacentres. HCI has the potential to leverage technological progress in different areas and reduce carbon consumption in critical areas. As HCI converges into separate boxes of servers, storage, and computing, it brings about an overall reduction in hardware components. This will have an immediate, positive impact on lowering carbon emissions.
Additionally, HCI significantly reduces over-provisioning by offering bite-sized consumption. It enables higher automation and increased utilisation, with fewer employees needed to run and maintain the infrastructure. Combining all this and the overall reduction in hardware components will see HCI reduce the carbon footprint of the datacentre significantly when compared to 3-Tier infrastructures.
Yes, the challenge to become more sustainable in everything we do is daunting. Change will not happen overnight, but it is possible to think more innovatively about addressing the problem.